Letter 6. Reverse of the Picture

{339} THE social union promises two great and contrary advantages, Protection and Liberty,—such protection as shall not interfere with liberty, and such liberty as shall not interfere with protection. How much a given nation can secure of the one, and how much of the other, depends on its peculiar circumstances. As there are small frontier territories, which find it their interest to throw themselves into the hands of some great neighbour, sacrificing their liberties as the price of purchasing safety from barbarians or rivals, so too there are countries which, in the absence of external danger, have abandoned themselves to the secure indulgence of freedom, to the jealous exercise of self-government, and to the scientific formation of a Constitution. And as, when liberty has to be surrendered for protection, the Horse must not be surprised if the Man whips or spurs him, so, when protection is neglected for the sake of liberty, he must not be surprised if he suffers from the horns of the Stag.

Protected by the sea, and gifted with a rare energy, self-possession, and imperturbability, the English people have been able to carry out self-government to its limits, and to absorb into its constitutional action many of those functions which are necessary for the protection of any country, and commonly belong to the Executive; and triumphing in their marvellous success they have thought {340} no task too hard for them, and have from time to time attempted more than even England could accomplish. Such a crisis has come upon us now, and the Constitution has not been equal to the occasion. For a year past we have been conducting a great war on our Constitutional routine, and have not succeeded in it. If we continue that routine, we shall have more failures, with France or Russia (whichever you please) to profit by it:—if we change it, we change what after all is Constitutional. It is this dilemma which makes me wish for peace,—or else some Deus è machinâ, some one greater even than Wellington, to carry us through. We cannot depend upon Constitutional routine.

People abuse routine, and say that all the mischief which happens is the fault of routine;—but can they get out of routine, without getting out of the Constitution? That is the question. The fault of a routine Executive, I suppose, is not that the Executive always goes on in one way,—else, system is in fault,—but that it goes on in a bad way, or on a bad system. We must either change the system, then,—our Constitutional system; or not find fault with its routine, which is according to it. The present Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry, for instance, is either a function and instrument of the routine system,—and therefore is making bad worse,—or is not,—and then perhaps it is only the beginning of an infringement of the Constitution. There may be Constitutional failures which have no Constitutional remedies, unwilling as we may be to allow it. They may be necessarily incidental to a free self-governing people.

The Executive of a nation is the same all over the world, being, in other words, the administration of the nation's affairs; it differs in different countries, not in its nature and office, nor in its ends, acts, or functions, but {341} in its characteristics, as being prompt, direct, effective, or the contrary; that is, as being strong or feeble. If it pursues its ends earnestly, performs its acts vigorously and discharges its functions successfully, then it is a strong Executive; if otherwise, it is feeble. Now, it is obvious, the more it is concentrated, that is, the fewer are its springs, and the simpler its mechanism, the stronger it is, because it has least friction and loss of power; on the other hand, the more numerous and widely dispersed its centres of action are, and the more complex and circuitous their inter-action, the more feeble it is. It is strongest, then, when it is lodged in one man out of the whole nation; it is feeblest, when it is lodged, by participation or conjointly, in every man in it. How can we help what is self-evident? If the English people lodge power in the many, not in the few, what wonder that its operation is roundabout, clumsy, slow, intermittent, and disappointing? And what is the good of finding fault with the routine, if it is after all the principle of the routine, or the system, or the Constitution, which causes the hitch? You cannot eat your cake and have it; you cannot be at once a self-governing nation and have a strong government. Recollect Wellington's question in opposition to the Reform Bill, "How is the King's Government to be carried on?" We are beginning to experience its full meaning.

A people so alive, so curious, so busy as the English, will be a power in themselves, independently of political arrangements; and will be on that very ground jealous of a rival, impatient of a master, and strong enough to cope with the one and to withstand the other. A government is their natural foe; they cannot do without it altogether, but they will have of it as little as they can. They will forbid the concentration of power; they will multiply its {342} seats, complicate its acts, and make it safe by making it inefficient. They will take care that it is the worst-worked of all the many organizations which are found in their country. As despotisms keep their subjects in ignorance, lest they should rebel, so will a free people maim and cripple their government, lest it should tyrannize.

This is human nature; the more powerful a man is, the more jealous is he of other powers. Little men endure little men; but great men aim at a solitary grandeur. The English nation is intensely conscious of itself; it has seen, inspected, recognized, appreciated, and warranted itself. It has erected itself into a personality, under the style and title of John Bull. Most neighbourly is he when let alone; but irritable, when commanded or coerced. He wishes to form his own judgment in all matters, and to have everything proved to him; he dislikes the thought of generously placing his interests in the hands of others, he grudges to give up what he cannot really keep himself, and stickles for being at least a sleeping partner in transactions which are beyond him. He pays his people for their work, and is as proud of them, if they do it well, as a rich man of his tall footmen.

Policy might teach him a different course. If you want your work done well, which you cannot do yourself, find the best man, put it into his hand, and trust him implicitly. An Englishman is too sensible not to understand this in private matters; but in matters of State he is afraid of such a policy. He prefers the system of checks and counter-checks, the division of power, the imperative concurrence of disconnected officials, and his own supervision and revision,—the method of hitches, cross-purposes, collisions, deadlocks, to the experiment of treating his public servants {343} as gentlemen. I am not quarelling with what is inevitable in his system of self-government; I only say that he cannot expect his work done in the best style, if this is his mode of providing for it. Duplicate functionaries do but merge responsibility; and a jealous master is paid with formal, heartless service. Do your footmen love you across the gulf which you have fixed between them and you? and can you expect your store-keepers and harbour-masters at Balaklava not to serve you by rule and precedent, not to be rigid in their interpretation of your orders, and to commit themselves as little as they can, when you show no belief in their zeal, and have no mercy on their failures?

England, surely, is the paradise of little men, and the purgatory of great ones. May I never be a Minister of State or a Field-Marshal! I'd be an individual, self-respecting Briton, in my own private castle, with the Times to see the world by, and pen and paper to scribble off withal to some public print, and set the world right. Public men are only my employés; I use them as I think fit, and turn them off without warning. Aberdeen, Gladstone, Sidney Herbert, Newcastle, what are they muttering about services and ingratitude? were they not paid? hadn't they their regular quarter-day? Raglan, Burgoyne, Dundas,—I cannot recollect all the fellows' names,—can they merit aught? can they be profitable to me their lord and master? And so, having no tenderness or respect for their persons, their antecedents, or their age,—not caring that in fact they are serving me with all their strength, not asking whether, if they manage ill, it be not, perchance, because they are in the fetters of Constitutional red tape, which have weighed on their hearts and deadened their energies, till the hazard of failure and the fear of censure have quenched {344} the spirit of daring, I think it becoming and generous,—during, not after their work, not when it is ended, but in the very agony of conflict,—to institute a formal process of inquiry into their demerits, not secret, not indulgent to their sense of honour, but in the hearing of all Europe, and amid the scorn of the world,—hitting down, knocking over, my workhouse apprentices, in order that they may get up again, and do my matters for me better.

How far these ways of managing a crisis can be amended in a self-governing Nation, it is most difficult to say. They are doubly deplorable, as being both unjust and impolitic. They are kind, neither to ourselves, nor to our public servants; and they so unpleasantly remind one of certain passages of Athenian history, as to suggest that perhaps they must ever more or less exist, except where a despotism, by simply extinguishing liberty, effectually prevents its abuse.

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